DISCLAIMER: The following is an original work of fan fiction based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. No profit is being made - enjoy!!
The Serpent's Tooth: Male Bonding II
Eleanor Tremayne, Ezquire
Now!" Chris Larabee yelled up into the rocks of the box canyon. He counted five heartbeats, then ten - and nothing; no avalanche, not even a shot coming from above him to sweep away the riders bearing down on Buck, the bait Chris had offered the marauders to get them to make this suicidal ride.
"Damn it, Ezra! Now!!" he bellowed again, breaking cover as Buck's gray horse ran out of room to run. The rumble of falling rocks finally answered his command, thundering down to cut through the middle of the marauders - but too late to save Buck and the rest of them from the danger of the guns fired by the leaders of the murderous pack.
Bullets pinged off the rocks around Chris as he scuttled through them, desperate to get to a place where he could lay down covering fire for Wilmington and his horse, squeezed into what little protection a previously tumbled part of the canyon and his six-shooter could afford them. Chris could hear Vin's sawed-off Winchester firing, but knew he, too, was in the wrong place to salvage the fucked-up plan.
A piercing whistle shrilled through the dusty air, jerking Chris's head around to face it - and temporarily halting gunplay on both sides. A man stood on the crest of the hill, the sun back-lighting him into an unmistakable silhouette.
"God damn it, Ezra!" Chris growled, sorely tempted to shoot the stupid fool off the heights himself as Standish tipped his hat to his audience. Chris swore again as he saw the flare of a match and the sparking of a fuse through the obscuring sunlight as the gambler cocked his hand back to throw something long and narrow down into the dozen men and horses who had made it through the trap alive.
Chris ducked automatically, and so did the marauders, scattering as the dynamite landed in their midst.
Ezra was moving as he threw his bomb, sprinting and leaping down to a granite outcropping where he could cover Buck's blindside and allow the others to change their positions in relative safety. He was nearly there when Chris and the marauders realized that the 'dynamite' he'd thrown was a flaming, whiskey-soaked handkerchief wrapped around a stick.
Chris just managed to restrain himself from taking aim on the flying tails of Ezra's red coat as he sailed through the air toward his chosen lair, hand pressing his hat firmly to his head. The marauders felt no such compunction, and Larabee had a bad moment or two where he forgot how to breathe as the air around the Southerner was filled with bullets. He remembered how to exhale again as soon as he heard the bark of Ezra's Remington returning fire.
The Remington was joined in short order by the weapons belonging to the rest of the lawmen from Four Corners. Chris gave the marauders a chance to surrender, which was declined in the usual way.
"Suit yourself," Chris muttered, taking aim and firing. It was a matter of a minute or two before the killing was done, the villains preferring death in a shootout to the nooses they knew were waiting for them back in civilization. While Larabee couldn't say he was happy to oblige, he couldn't say he minded much, either.
It took another minute or two after the guns fell silent for Vin to signal the all-clear. Slowly, the seven peacekeepers emerged from their cover, climbing up and over the canyon to skirt the rough corral of the marauder's terrified horses.
"Whew," Buck sighed, grinning, as Chris jumped down beside him. "Hell of a ride."
Chris said nothing, and Buck hoped he would spot Ezra before Larabee did.
"Ezra!" Chris growled, as the gambler scrambled through the debris to join his fellows. Standish looked up from where he had been examining his ripped jacket and shirtsleeve. Dirt smudged his face and smothered his jacket and hat.
"You get shot?" the gunslinger demanded.
"No, I -"
Chris grabbed the front of Ezra's ruffled shirt, pulling the shorter man up into his face. The gambler caught Chris's arm, green eyes flaring into anger as his gaze locked with Larabee's equally furious one.
"Now means now, damn it!"
"A complication arose -"
"I don't want to hear it. I'm sick of hearing it! You damn near got Buck killed. Start pulling your weight, Ezra, or I'll shoot you myself - before I lose anyone because of your carelessness."
Chris shoved Ezra away from him, stalking off toward their horses.
Vin looked at Standish, and the gambler gave him a stiff smile, tugging at his damaged sleeve.
"Mr. Larabee seems upset," the gambler remarked casually. Behind him, he heard Nathan snort in disgust.
"You scared him good, Pard," Vin told him, before heading out to follow Larabee.
"He ain't the only one," Buck added, giving the gambler a 'thank you' pat on the back along the way to collecting J.D.
Ezra stood his ground, letting the others go around him on the short walk back to where they had hidden their horses. Licking his lips free of dust, he squinted at their disappearing backs, then up to the horizon. The sun was on the descent, collaring the approaching black of night in deep blue.
"What a lousy day to die," he sighed.
It took a couple of strides for Vin to catch up with Larabee. The tracker kept his silence, waiting for Chris to cool off.
"Wonder what the complication was?" Tanner finally mused. "Didn't see anything unexpected.... Maybe the mountain didn't want to fall down."
"Then he shouldn't have told me he could make it fall down," Chris snapped.
"Man's entitled to make a mistake - especially if he fixes it."
"How am I supposed to cut him any slack after what happened with Olivia?"
Vin blinked. "Somethin' happen with Olivia?'
"He fell asleep on watch, remember? If he'd been doin' what he was supposed to, J.D. wouldn't have gotten hurt, and we could have taken Coltrane a hell of a lot sooner and safer."
"Ezra didn't fall asleep on watch," Vin said, almost reluctantly.
Chris stopped, his eyes narrowing as Tanner turned back toward him. "When I asked him what happened, how J.D. got hurt and how Coltrane's boys got to Olivia, he told me it was because he fell asleep."
Vin considered what to say next. "What'd Josiah say when you talked to him?"
"I didn't - I didn't have to. I'd already talked to Ezra."
Vin nodded. "Reckon you handed him his head."
"J.D. and Olivia could have been killed."
Vin shifted his gaze away from Larabee, looking back the way they had come with a frown.
"What don't I know, Vin?" Chris asked softly.
"Wasn't Ezra's watch. He was s'posed to be sleepin'."
"Son of a bitch..." Chris shoved his hat back on his head. "When Olivia asked us why he didn't come to tell her goodbye, I said he was asleep..."
"Saw him watchin' the stage leave from the saloon - seems Missus Greer told him to stay away from her daughter, 'cause he's the kind of man she's tryin' to protect Olivia from." Vin eloquently expressed his opinion of Mrs. Greer by spitting into the dirt.
"She might have a point..." Chris conceded, before shaking his head and putting his fist into his palm. "No. No, she doesn't."
"Ezra thought she did." Vin closed his eyes, repeating what Ezra had told him verbatim. "Said her opinion of him was a credit to her ability as a parent."
'Gut shot 'im,' Chris realized - just as he realized that, like Ezra, he couldn't hold it against her. "Hell, Vin - if it looks like a snake, hisses like a snake, and bites like a snake, chances are - it's a snake."
"Or Coyote tryin' real hard to wiggle into a snake's skin."
"Yeah, well, I was taught to shoot coyotes."
"That's one way of dealin' with 'em," Vin agreed. "'Less, of course, he happens to be on your side."
"I'm not sure he is. I can't predict him - and that's bad. I need to know what he's gonna do, need to know if I can count on him to be there for us."
Vin opened his mouth to say something, then turned it into a yawn and started trudging off toward the horses. Chris easily brought himself even with the tracker.
"You ain't gonna like it."
"Reckon if I were you, and tryin' to figure out what Ezra was gonna do, I'd ask myself, 'Chris Larabee, what would I do in this here situation?'"
Chris looked at Tanner like he'd just sprouted daisies from his head.
"Not how you'd do it - but what you'd do. You're blown from the same damn tornado, Chris - you rip up a house by the roots and drop it on a tree. Ezra rips up the tree and rams it through the house without breakin' the dishes. Same thing happens, just in a different way."
"Think he'll tell me the truth about what happened with the avalanche?"
"What would you do?"
"Hell, if he'd been me, I'd be dead already."
Ezra screwed the cap back on his silver flask as J.D. rode up to him, leading an annoyed Chaucer by his reins.
"We're settin' up camp," J.D. told him, dropping the reins so Chaucer could walk up to where Ezra was sitting on a rock, his crossed legs stretched out in front of him. "Too late to ride back to town tonight. Sides, we gotta do somethin' about all those trapped horses."
Rescuing his hat from Chaucer's friendly attempt to eat it, Ezra let his grip on the horse's bridle help him to his feet. "Ave," he greeted his best friend softly, stroking the elegant forehead.
J.D. rode up beside Ezra, looking down at the man hiding himself in the shadow thrown by the brim of his hat. "I don't think Chris meant what he said, Ezra. Leastways, not literally. You just scared us half to death with that dynamite bluff."
"I - have a favor to ask of you, Mr. Dunne."
J.D. frowned. Ezra made deals, accepted debts, but he never asked for or accepted favors.
"If I can," the young Easterner answered, having been around the gambler enough to know how to hedge his bets.
"Please take care of Chaucer for me."
"Be happy to, Ezra. You get hurt in that fall?" he asked, walking his horse forward past the gambler to get enough room to turn back around toward the camp.
"No, J.D., I wasn't hurt during my precipitous leap," Ezra sighed.
"Good," J.D. smiled with relief, really only understanding the "I wasn't hurt" part of the gambler's reply. His frown returned as he felt a tug on his jacket pocket as he rode past.
"For your trouble..." Ezra said, softly.
"Dang it, Ezra!" Dunne snapped, turning his horse's head more sharply than he'd intended as his hand dug into his pocket. "I ain't like you - I don't expect payment for doin' somethin' nice for a friend."
Even as he spoke, his fingers found the money Standish had given him, curling around a fold several inches thick. "Ezra?" he called, his question drowned out by a startled nicker from Chaucer. His horse shied away from the bay's alarm, fighting J.D. as he forced it to turn in the gambler's direction.
"Oh my God..."
Ezra lay face down on the ground in front of Chaucer, his hat tumbled well under the horse's belly. J.D. swung off his horse, dragging the excited animal away from the wide-eyed Chaucer. He couldn't ground-tie his horse, as Toby gave every indication he was prepared to run all the way back to town to get away from Chaucer.
"Dang, dang, dang!" J.D. swore, taking time his gut told him he didn't have to lead his horse further away from Chaucer and get a safe hobble on him.
Turning back to Ezra, J.D. held a placating hand up to Chaucer. "Easy fella, I just gotta check on your Daddy..."
Chaucer laid his ears back against his skull, champing at his bit as J.D. edged closer.
"Easy, easy..." J.D. coaxed, trying to get hold of the trailing reins. Another couple of steps, and he'd either have the reins or Ezra's ankle.
Chaucer allowed him neither, rearing savagely upward, his toe-clips gleaming evilly in the dim light. J.D. scurried backwards and Chaucer put all four hooves back on the ground, standing beside Ezra with the muscles under his hide twitching.
"Ah, he-ck," J.D. finished, as Chaucer's ears twitched even further back on his head. Unwilling to leave Ezra, J.D. retreated a few more steps. He didn't want to fire off a shot to summon the others, concerned about what effect the noise would have on the agitated horse, but he had to get their help.
"Hang on, Ezra," he told the unmoving man. "I'll be right back. You take care of him, boy." It took less time to free his horse than it had to secure him, and he was on its back and away, the gelding more than willing to gallop away from the prancing bay as fast as he could.
"What the -?" Wilmington said, clearing leather along with the four other men waiting at the campsite for J.D. to bring in their black sheep.
"Buck!!" J.D. cried again, his voice clearer over the roll of his horse's hooves on the packed ground. "Nathan!!"
The hairs stood up on the back of Chris's neck and he knew the same sensation was crawling down every other spine. Calling for Buck was something the kid would do if he saw a pretty butterfly, but him calling for Nathan meant someone was hurt.
J.D. pulled the horse up short, kicking dirt across the sputtering fire Vin had just built. Buck grabbed the gelding's bridle, giving J.D. a helping hand with his dismount that left the kid hanging by his shirt from Wilmington's fist.
Getting his feet back under him, J.D. gasped, "Ezra's down, and Chaucer won't let me near him!"
"That damned horse!" Buck swore.
"What happened?" Nathan demanded, swinging his medical bags over his shoulder.
"I dunno - one minute he was standin' there, talkin' to me, and then - he was lyin' on the ground."
Buck could see the fear in J.D.'s eyes as the kid looked up at him. "Buck, he - he gave me Chaucer..." Dunne held up a hand filled with a thick fold of cash, "and he gave me this..."
"Rope," Chris ordered shortly, heading for his saddle to get his. "Leave the horses. Josiah, you watch the camp. Where is he, J.D.?"
"Where we left him."
"He'll kill us," Vin observed, as Chaucer's flailing hooves warned them away from where Ezra lay face down in the dirt.
"Oh, God..." J.D. breathed. "He hasn't moved, Buck..."
"Let's get these ropes on him," Chris ordered, sending Buck, J.D. and Vin into position to rope the bay. "Once you've got him, get him as far away from Ezra as you can." Turning to Nathan, he said, "If it goes wrong, shoot the horse."
Nathan nodded, his fingers working on the barrel of the rifle he held. 'If it goes wrong...' The words repeated themselves in his mind: If it goes wrong... As if anything about this moment was right.
Getting the ropes around Chaucer's neck was a nightmare, and it took all the skill the four men had to maneuver around the angry horse.
"Jesus Christ," Buck muttered, earning a whistling near miss from a steel-shod hoof.
"Buck!" J.D. barked. "Don't swear, dang it!"
"I know, I know!" Wilmington fumed, getting hold of his temper. "Blasted horse's more of a gentleman than he is!"
"Again," Chris ordered, not for the first time admiring Ezra's temperamental mount. Whoever had trained the horse had turned out a fine cavalry charger. He'd seen other horses do this in the war, standing patiently by the bodies of their dead riders. A few, like Chaucer, had gone beyond patience into a fierce protectiveness of their fallen masters. A bullet was a rotten reward for that kind of loyalty.
This time, Vin got his lasso around Chaucer's arching neck, pulling the horse's attention away from Chris. He was entirely too successful in getting the rearing horse's attention, however, as Chaucer decided a good offense was the best defense against the sudden restraint of the rope.
"Whoa!" Vin cried, his heels bouncing off the fallen rocks that prevented any further retreat from the plunging, razor-edged hooves.
"Gotcha!" Buck shouted, getting his lariat around Chaucer just in time to prevent a double murder.
Chris was moving the moment Chaucer lit out after Vin, racing toward Ezra. Grabbing an ankle, Chris hauled an unresisting Standish away from Chaucer's outraged, screaming neighs. Trapped in the box canyon, the confused and helpless mounts of the marauders answered him, turning the silence of evening into a ghastly chorus of equine fear and rage.
As quickly as he could, Chris traded his grip on the gambler's boot for one on the back of Ezra's gunbelt and another on his jacket collar, dragging him out of harm's way on his butt.
Chaucer's neighing took on a different quality as Chris got far enough away for the horse to see his rider's face. He gave up on trying to kill Vin, straining against the ropes to reach Ezra's side.
"Easy, easy," J.D. coaxed, approaching the horse carefully. "It's all right, boy, we've got him now - we'll take care of him..."
"Careful, Kid," Buck urged, not letting his rope slack as J.D. approached the trembling horse.
Chris decided he was far enough away from Chaucer to risk stopping to feel for a pulse in Ezra's neck. The gambler's body had been warm through the fabric of his clothes, but it was too soon since his collapse and the ground was still too warm from the day's heat for that to have given the gunslinger any reassurance.
"He's alive'!" Chris announced, relief sighing out of him in one long breath.
"What's wrong with him?" Nathan demanded, chafing under the responsibility of the rifle.
"Can't tell," Chris said, running his hands over Ezra's arms, legs, and torso. "He ain't bleedin'."
"See?" J.D. told Chaucer, slowly taking hold of his reins. "Like I told ya, everything's gonna be fine now...." Keeping his voice low and soothing, he told Buck and Vin, "Ease up, boys.... He'll listen to me now, I think..."
"You better be sure," Buck said, reluctant to let up on Ezra's loco ride.
"Ease up," J.D. repeated, gently petting the quivering flanks of the anxious horse. Vin and Buck did, and Chaucer stood still under J.D.'s hands.
"Probably best if you get Ezra out of here," Dunne said. "I'll stay and take care of Chaucer.
"Let's get 'im where there's some light," Nathan agreed. In the fading twilight, even standing next to Standish the healer could just barely make out the pale, slack features of the gambler.
"Let's go," Buck said, hauling Ezra up by the lapels of his vest and tossing him over his shoulder. Chris jumped to his feet, knowing from experience they'd have to run to keep up with Wilmington. Chaucer sent a pathetic little whinny after them, and Buck began to jog.
Josiah had put the time he'd spent waiting to good use. The fire had been rebuilt, water was simmering into a boil, and a bedroll was laid out for Ezra. An oil lantern sat lit and waiting. The time for praying would come after he knew there was nothing else he could do.
Buck sat Ezra down on the blanket, keeping the Southerner upright with an arm around his shoulders. Reaching out, Wilmington straightened the gambler's lolling head into the support of the crook between his shoulder and chest.
"Strip him off," Nathan ordered, handing Josiah the rifle and his bags as he shrugged out of his coat and began to roll up his sleeves.
Vin dropped to the ground between Ezra and the fire, ignoring the discomfort from the heat. Pulling his knife, he began cutting the gambler's jacket and shirt from his body, starting with the torn sleeves. Across from him, Buck did the same, ruthlessly destroying Ezra's expensive waistcoat, suspenders, and white silk shirt.
"Ah, hell..." Vin said softly, his shoulders slumping as he stabbed his knife into the ground beside him.
"What?" Chris demanded, his mouth running dry.
It took Vin a moment to raise his head and meet Larabee's gaze. "Found the complication." Carefully, the tracker used both hands to lift Ezra's limp arm up so they could all see it in the light thrown by the fire. The gambler's forearm was bright red and half again its normal size, angry red streaks running up his arm, stretching out under his skin from the tight lump of flesh that crowned the swelling.
"Snake bite," Chris recognized.
"Dear God..." Nathan said, the fingers turning his cuffs slowing. No real rush now....
"You can do somethin', can't ya?" Buck demanded, looking from Vin to the defeated healer.
"Not much," Vin explained. "Snake bite you take care of when it happens, or you don't get to take care of it."
"Now means now," Chris muttered.
"'Fraid so," Vin nodded, gently placing Ezra's arm across his lap. "He'll live - or he won't." Leaning forward, Vin took the gambler's chin in his hand and turned it toward his nose. A quick sniff confirmed his worst fears, and he touched Ezra's head in a gesture half of comfort and half of farewell.
"He take a drink outta that flask of his?" Nathan asked, his eyes on the toes of his boots.
"Reckon it hurt pretty fierce," Vin confirmed.
"Is that bad?" Wilmington demanded, bringing his other arm around Ezra, as if he could protect the younger man from the poison eating through his bloodstream.
"It's real bad, Buck," Jackson answered. "May be what's killin' him."
His face expressionless, Chris walked away from the fire into the darkness.
It was, Josiah acknowledged, time to pray.
"Chris!" J.D. jumped half out of his boots as the gunslinger stalked out of the darkness.
Larabee ran expert eyes over the blanketed Chaucer, knowing before he checked that everything would be in order.
"How's Ezra?" the kid asked.
"Bad," Chris replied. "Got bit by a snake when he was in the rocks." An unwelcome vision of a funeral procession of six men and one bay horse, a pair of custom made boots backward in the stirrups of its saddle rose in Chris's imagination.
J.D. swallowed. "How bad is bad?"
"Nathan ain't hopeful."
J.D. swallowed again, this time trying his best not to cry in front of Chris. He failed miserably.
Chris reached a hand out to scratch Chaucer's nose. The horse snuffled at the wrist temptingly close to his mouth, getting his tongue on it. Chris waited, letting him pick his spot.
"Careful!" J.D. warned, his voice thin. "He's a biter..."
Soft lips nipped at Chris's wrist and then a handsome bay head was pressed into his shoulder.
"He likes you..." Dunne gaped, amazed.
Chris sighed. "C'mon, J.D. - you take care of those other horses. I'll take care of the bodies."
Josiah turned toward the sound of feet and hooves, the rising wind biting through his shirt and vest. J.D. and Chris approached, Chaucer between them, all three disconsolate.
"That danged horse sure warmed up to him awful quick," Buck muttered to Vin, checking the faint pulse in Ezra's neck for the third time in as many minutes.
The tracker considered the bay, and the arm Larabee had tucked under and around the horse's neck. "Reckon he's tryin' to make Chris feel bad...."
"Reckon it's workin'?" Buck flashed something that might have passed for a smile at Tanner.
"How...?" J.D. asked Josiah, shifting the burden of Ezra's tack where it rested against his shoulder.
"Alive," the big man rumbled, stepping away from the approaching trio as Chaucer lifted his lip at him.
"Better'n dead," Chris agreed. J.D. ducked his head and took Chaucer off to where the other horses were tethered.
Chris approached the group huddled around Ezra and the fire. Standish was propped up against stacked saddles, and the gunslinger could hear a rattling wheeze every time the gambler won the fight to draw a shallow breath.
Larabee looked away from Ezra, studying the clouds scudding across the sky to block the stars and the waning moon from view. "Storm comin'," he said.
Vin rose with a nod to Buck, walking off into the night to unpack the canvas lean-to.
"I hate storms," Buck remarked to no one in particular, tucking the blankets that covered Ezra's bare shoulders in a little bit tighter.
"I like 'em," Nathan said. "They're wild - free.... Stormy nights, dogs don't like to hunt, neither."
"Think that'll help?" Buck asked, watching Jackson change the poultice of herbs he and Vin had concocted between their supplies to try and draw what poison they could from the oozing bite.
"Don't think it'll hurt."
Snatching his hat off his head, Buck slapped it across his knee in frustration. "Damn it!"
"Not your fault, Buck," Nathan told him.
"Ain't sayin' it is. But I got a right to appreciate what he did."
"Still can't believe it," Jackson said, shaking his head as he looked fondly down at the gambler. "Never thought Ezra'd put someone else's life above his own."
Buck pushed himself to his feet, looking down at Jackson with an anger the healer hadn't realized lived inside Wilmington.
"Nathan, you're a good man, and I do consider you a friend - but sometimes you are one blind son of a bitch."
Josiah smiled at the stunned Jackson, taking Buck's place next to Ezra as Wilmington called out to Vin and Chris, offering his help in their project.
"Do you think Ezra would have acted any differently if you had been the one in the canyon?" Sanchez asked quietly.
"Yes - yes, I do."
Josiah chuckled. "You're not blind, brother - you're a bigot."
Slapping the sputtering Jackson on the shoulder, Josiah went to help the others with the shelter.
Sanchez joined Chris at the outskirts of the clearing, glancing from Larabee's unreadable features to the black horizon that the gunslinger studied so intensely.
"How'd Coltrane's boys get to Olivia Greer?"
It was not a question Josiah had expected, but then again, that in itself was to be expected. Larabee was a man who consistently surprised him.
"I fell asleep, dreaming I was awake. The curse of age and youth - the spirit is willing, but the flesh can't sustain it."
"Why didn't you tell me what happened?" Chris asked carefully, determined not to go off half-cocked again.
"I tried. You weren't interested in listening."
Chris dropped his eyes to the ground, kicking at a tuft of dead sagebrush.
"I'd already talked to Ezra."
"That must have been quite the conversation," Josiah smiled.
"It was a little one-sided."
Josiah's smile became a mirthless chuckle.
"It ain't funny, Josiah."
"No, it's not. I expect he told you it was his fault?"
"He said as much in the moment." Josiah closed his eyes, the shame and disappointment that saddened his expression reaching through the darkness to make Chris shift his weight uneasily. "As he ran past me, I heard him say, 'You should have known better, Ezra'. He didn't mean to be overheard." Josiah paused, looking down at his upturned hands.
"Brother Standish is not a man who willingly gives his trust... and when my day of judgment comes, I do believe that one of the sins I will have to answer for is betraying that trust when it was given to me freely."
"You and J.D. have a talk?"
"You and Ezra?"
"In his eyes, it was his responsibility - there wasn't anything for us to discuss."
"He's a liar, Josiah - a cheat, a con artist - he's stabbed us in the back once for money - he shouldn't know how to take responsibility, damn it."
'And you're a cold-blooded killer -- a whiskey-soaked drifter with nothing to live for,' the preacher reminded Larabee silently. Aloud, he said, "A man can have many sides, many faces.... He can live many different lives in the span of his years."
"I know what kind of man Ezra is," Chris admitted, softly, regretfully, before turning back to the nearly pitched lean-to and the unmoving body lying by the wildly dancing fire.
'I imagine you do,' Josiah thought as he watched Larabee leave. 'Every time you let yourself see who's in your mirror.'
Nathan smelled tobacco smoke and looked up to see Chris hovering on the border between the night and the firelight.
"Tent's pitched," Larabee said around the cigarillo in his mouth.
Nathan nodded. "Can you watch him while I get it ready?"
The bright red ash of the cigarillo spun as Chris ground his teeth together, but he came to kneel beside Ezra on the far side of the fire. Nathan gave the gunslinger what he hoped was an encouraging smile as he rose. "He ain't gotten any worse."
Chris nodded without looking up as Nathan passed him. He told himself it was the bad light that made the skin around Ezra's open mouth blue, but he didn't believe it. The rising wind and the sparks popping in the agitated coals of the fire drowned the faint rasp of the gambler's breathing, and Chris found himself peeling the black leather gloves from his hands so he could search for the pulse in Ezra's jugular vein. It took longer than it should have to register under his cold fingers, and he kept his hand against the younger man's neck as if his touch could somehow keep Ezra's heart beating.
The sound of the rasp changed suddenly, and Chris leaned down the better to hear. Ezra's pulse jumped, jerking into a faster rhythm - and then Ezra's eyes were open, a thin ring of green around fully dilated pupils. The Southerner blinked slowly, focusing on the face above him - but not, Chris realized, seeing him.
The barely audible whisper twisted into Chris's tightening gut.
"...Momma..." Ezra moaned again, so softly that Larabee had to put his ear inches away from the gambler to hear him. "...Where's momma...?"
Chris had no answer for that question, had never had an answer for that question. Ezra blinked again, and again, rapidly, and Chris's gut flip-flopped into the base of his throat as he realized Standish was fighting not to cry.
"...She left again... didn't she...?" Ezra said, his breath warm against Larabee's frozen cheek. Moving his hand from the gambler's neck to his shoulder, Chris gripped it hard.
"I'm sure she'll be back soon, son."
Ezra's chin trembled like a child's, twisting his face with hurt. Closing his eyes against his tears, Standish turned his face toward the fire, hiding from Chris.
"Ezra?" Chris asked, shaking the shoulder he held as he watched the gambler's mouth loosen and fall open again as he slipped back into unconsciousness.
"Nathan!" Larabee snapped loudly, once again searching for and finding Ezra's sluggish pulse.
Nathan came running, but Buck beat him to Standish, kneeling opposite Chris with the fire roasting his back.
"What?!" Wilmington demanded, as Jackson crowded in beside Larabee, putting his hand on the faint rise and fall of Ezra's chest.
"He opened his eyes," Chris explained.
"Well, now," Nathan said, the faint voice of hope beginning to tease him. He looked up at Vin and the others as they gathered around Ezra's feet, searching for something, anything, to convince themselves that the gambler was better than he had been just a moment ago.
Larabee looked away from Ezra, out into nothingness. "He wants his mama...." He shook his head, a thousand miles and many years away from the storm-threatened desert night. "They always want their mama..."
"Damn it, Chris!" Buck reached across Ezra, grabbing his old friend's arm in a bruising grip and shaking him hard. "Don't you give up on him! Don't you dare!"
Nathan sat back from the fury on Wilmington's face, pushing himself away from the answering snarl on Larabee's as they locked arms over the body of a dying man. These two men had walked through heaven and hell together, and that bound them now as tightly as it had once separated them. Buck shook Chris's arm one more time, then let him go, turning his attention back to Ezra. Gently, he turned the gambler's face toward the sky so he could watch Standish breathe.
Looking up at the shaken Tanner, who was still staring at Chris, Nathan said, "Vin, make some coffee - and make it strong."
A gleam came into Vin's eyes and he headed toward his saddlebags. Chris looked at Buck, the anger in his expression suddenly turning into amusement.
"Hell," Buck chuckled, checking Ezra's pulse yet again, "that's like tellin' a fish to swim - God only knows where he'll get if he's tryin'."
Buck lifted the spoon from the broad enamel cup he held, letting the thick black soup that Vin had handed him drip slowly from its edge.
"Jesus," he muttered, the overwhelming aroma of coffee making his eyes water as he blew on a spoonful to cool it down.
"Perfect," Nathan congratulated Vin, finding himself in the unaccustomed role of spectator and coach as Buck and Chris prepared to force-feed Ezra the powerful coffee. Nathan was hoping that Ezra's body would be responsive enough to swallow the stimulant, instead of drowning in it.
Vin felt a drop of moisture land on his skin. "Best hurry up," he urged. They were racing against time, trying to make as much use of the fire's light and warmth for as long as the storm let them have it.
Chris nodded, also feeling the harbinger of the desert squall on his unprotected face, his hat having long ago been blown down his back. Pressing Ezra's forehead down with one hand, Chris pinched the gambler's nose with the other. When his already gaping mouth opened wide to gulp down more air in compensation for what it had lost, Buck dumped a spoonful of the coffee into Standish's mouth. Ezra coughed and swallowed, and Nathan resisted the urge to grab J.D. and swing him around.
"That's good?" Dunne guessed from the delight on the healer's face, trying to hold the lantern he held up over Ezra steady in the relentless gale.
"It ain't bad," was as far as Nathan was willing to go.
Chris let go of Ezra's nose, allowing the gambler to recover his breath before pinching it off again to let Buck zip in with the spoon.
"You boys done this before?" Vin asked.
"Once or twice," Buck replied as he wiped up the trail of liquid Ezra coughed out the side of his mouth with the edge of the top blanket.
They'd gotten half a cup of the caffeine into the Southerner when he turned his head away from the spoon, fighting its insistence, fighting Chris's determined suffocation.
"He's awake!" J.D. cried, nearly dropping the lantern in his excitement.
Josiah put a calming hand on the boy's shoulder. "Not quite," the preacher corrected gently.
"My Pa always said my coffee could wake the dead," Vin grinned proudly.
Chris let go of Ezra's nose, waving Buck and the spoon off as the gambler's beleaguered lungs started to heave in distress.
"Ezra!" Chris barked, grabbing the younger man's chin and straightening his head and neck. "Calm down..."
"That's right," Buck coaxed. "Just breathe, Pard."
"...Not hungry..." Ezra gasped, his weak voice nearly carried away by the wind. "...Not hungry, damn it..."
"It's coffee, Ezra," Buck explained, knowing that wherever the gambler was, he wasn't with them. "Y'gotta drink it."
"...Not... hungry... give... Jordan..."
"Ezra -" Buck tried again, only to be silenced by the desperate, despairing gaze revealed when the Southerner's eyes opened.
"...To Jordan... Sergeant..." Ezra panted, looking up at Wilmington like he was his best friend.
"Jordan's been fed," Chris said, playing his gut's hunch. "They've all been fed, Standish." He put his hand behind Ezra's skull, lifting it up. Buck followed Larabee's lead, helping to support the heavy head as he lifted the cup to the gambler's lips.
"...Not hungry..." Ezra insisted stubbornly. Horrified, Chris realized Standish was crying again.
"Drink it," Larabee grated. "That's an order, Mister."
"Son of a bitch," Buck breathed.
"More," Chris commanded, as Vin refilled the cup with the lukewarm coffee.
"I said 'drink it'," Larabee repeated.
Ezra did, almost choking from the opposite demands of obedience to Chris and obedience to his oxygen-starved body.
"Whoa, whoa," Buck grunted, tipping the cup upright as Ezra slipped away from them once again. Chris raised Ezra's head, tilting it to pour out any coffee the Southerner hadn't managed to swallow.
"Let's get under cover," Nathan said, taking the cup from Wilmington. "Bring that pot, Vin."
The lean-to had lost half its size when converted to a bent-sapling supported A-frame tie-down. Ezra lay down its center with Buck on one side of him with the spoon and coffee cup, Chris on the other with Nathan beside him. Vin angled in next to Buck, huddled up in his buckskin capote. Josiah sat behind Nathan, at the gambler's feet, his bulk blocking the freezing drafts better than the saddle blankets tacked up over the open ends of the tent. J.D sat next to Vin, squinting in the uneven light from the swaying lantern they'd hung from the sapling.
J.D. shivered under his blanket and heavy coat, grateful for the bandanna-wrapped hot rocks Vin had given him to put in his pockets. The wind was too strong for a fire to be safe, even if the cramped quarters had allowed its presence.
Noticing the shiver, Vin passed him the warm coffeepot to hug against his middle.
Wrapping his arms around it, J.D. tried not to let Ezra's gasp and gurgle as the gambler was doggedly force-fed get to him. Taking his cue from Vin, Nathan gave Dunne an encouraging smile.
"What's the coffee s'posed to do?" J.D. asked, finding he had to half-shout to be heard over the wind, even as close as they were.
"Helps his body wake up," Nathan explained. "Like when a man's tryin' to sober up."
"He didn't drink that much," Dunne protested. "Well - it didn't seem like it, anyway."
"When was he drinkin', J.D.?" Chris asked, his eyes hidden under the brim of his hat.
"When I rode up with Chaucer. He sure didn't seem drunk."
Chris smiled a cold little smile.
"You weren't the only one there," Wilmington reminded him. "He coulda mentioned it to somebody."
'I wouldn't have," Chris thought, pinching Ezra's nose closed with perhaps a little more force than was strictly necessary.
"Why?" J.D. asked, looking from Chris, to Buck, to Vin, to Nathan, who was shaking his head in frustration at his own stupidity in not finding out more about Ezra's 'complication' when there might still have been time to help the gambler. "Is it important?"
Nathan patted J.D.'s bundled-up knee. "You know whiskey slows a man down, right? If he drinks enough of it, he passes out."
"Well, snake's venom does the same thing - it slows a body down, makes it hard work to even breathe. Whiskey makes it worse - it can make a body slow down far enough that it just plain stops."
"Oh." The kid's gaze went to Ezra's face. "So that means..."
"It means I killed him, kid," Chris said, with that same cold little smile.
"Don't count your chicks before they're hatched," Vin advised the gunslinger.
Chris made no reply as he lifted and turned Ezra's head and shoulders to the side as Standish gagged on the coffee. Buck whacked the gambler firmly between his shoulder blades and Ezra obligingly spit up saliva and black ooze all over Chris's poncho. It made Larabee think of his son, and Sarah, and he very nearly decided to abandon the confines of the tent and take his chances with the elements.
An unexpected boom! of thunder stopped him, and instead of running away, Chris found himself instinctively leaning over the Southerner in a protective flinch that Buck mirrored.
"Thunder," Buck said with a relieved sigh, sitting up and wiping off Ezra's face with the folded cloth Nathan handed him from his field kit.
"Thunder," Chris agreed, taking the cloth to wipe ineffectually at the dribble down his front.
Another boom! rocked the night, much closer now. Ezra's shoulders jerked at the sound of it, and the six men surrounding him leaned forward, holding their collective breaths. The third crack of thunder was close enough to shake the ground under them and Ezra's eyes snapped open.
"Action front!" he cried, weakened body flopping as it tried to obey the command to rise and move. "Drive on, damn it! Move, Lieutenant!"
"Ezra!" Buck bellowed, handing the coffee cup to Vin. "Ezra, wake up!"
"Calm down, Ezra!" Nathan shouted, grabbing the gambler's legs to prevent their feeble movement. Josiah grabbed Ezra's ankles, holding them steady.
Thunder shook the earth again, swaying the lantern into flirting with oblivion.
"Fire in the hole!" Ezra screamed, struggling up off the saddles. Buck put an arm around his shoulders to hold him up and Chris grabbed the younger man's chin, forcing those wide green eyes to look into his.
"Standish!" Larabee barked. "Stop it!"
Ezra collapsed back against Buck's arm, by some miracle managing to get shaking fingers around the wrist of the hand that held his face in a vice.
"...Cease fire..." he breathed, face twisting as he fought to control his emotions. "...God in heaven, cease fire..."
Heaven seemed to hear him, rain replacing the thunder and cutting the wind as it hammered down upon the waxed canvas. They heard the thunder rumble in the distance, and Ezra lost his fight to hold himself in check. Chris let go of his chin before the tears could reach his fingers, finding himself taking the Southerner's hand as it slipped from its tenuous hold on his arm.
"...They kept comin'..." Ezra murmured, staring up at Chris like a drowning man looking for a rope. "...They just wouldn't stop comin'..."
"Who wouldn't stop, Ezra?" Chris asked.
"...They didn't have to die..."
"Ezra," Chris said, squeezing the hand he held until it burned his own skin. "Standish!"
The Southerner blinked at him, seeing - someone else. "Sir?"
"Where are we, Standish?"
Ezra's eyes closed in anguish. "...Fredericksburg..."
Buck bowed his head until his chin touched his chest.
"No," Chris growled. "No! Look at me, Ezra. Look at me!"
Ezra's eyes blinked open.
"We're in New Orleans," Chris told him, with a stare that had saved more than one man's life by convincing them to back down from a rash challenge. "You remember New Orleans, don't ya, Ezra?"
The corner of the gambler's mouth twitched upward into a smile. "...C'est bon..."
"Sounds like he's been there," Buck said from under his hat.
"That ain't cannon outside - that's fireworks. Mardi Gras fireworks."
Ezra mouthed the words, "Mardi Gras..."
Buck used his free hand to shove his hat back on his head. "You spent all night playin' poker for high stakes," Wilmington elaborated, close to Ezra's ear. "You broke the bank - you're a hundred thousand dollars richer than you were yesterday." The big man warmed to his story, sketching feminine curves in the air over Ezra's face. "And you've been celebratin' all mornin' with a beautiful blonde Mamselle named Monique..."
"...Monique..." Ezra repeated, his eyelids sinking shut as his smile grew.
"And her best friend, Mademoiselle Colette, the prettiest little redhead this side of Delaware," Chris added.
Ezra's head lolled down Buck's arm, onto Chris's shoulder as he sought out the comfort of his winnings.
"That's right," Wilmington encouraged, stroking the back of Ezra's head just the way Buck liked to have his stroked. "You snuggle up to that fine lookin' woman, and just go to sleep now, Ezra."
The gambler muttered something, but all Buck and the others could hear was, "...Cherie?"
"Laissez les bon temps roulez," Chris answered, and Ezra drifted away again, the grin on his wet face slowly fading.
"You speak French, Cowboy?" Vin said, the first to be able to speak.
"Nope," Chris answered, flashing a grin of his own as he looked at the tracker. "But I been to New Orleans."
Buck snorted, and Larabee frowned at him. "Fine lookin' woman?"
"You're the one that took him to New Orleans. I just showed him the sights."
Chris looked down at the man he and Wilmington supported between them, and Vin watched him age a million years in a moment of memory. "I couldn't leave him there, Bucklin. If he's gonna die, I didn't want it to be there. We buried enough friends at Fredericksburg."
"Wonder how many of 'em he killed?" Buck asked, his weary face troubled as he eased Ezra back onto the saddles.
"Wonder how many times we returned the favor?" Chris countered, locking his gaze with Buck's. After a moment, Wilmington nodded his understanding, tucking Ezra's arm back under his warm cocoon of blankets.
After a few minutes of listening to the rain and watching each of his companions retreat into themselves, Vin pulled out his harmonica and began to play it softly, mostly to himself.
It pulled Chris out of his reverie to look a question at the tracker.
"Sharpshooter, 17th Mississippi," Vin explained simply.
Chris started to laugh and Buck readjusted his hat.
"Y'were a Reb sniper?" Wilmington asked.
"Sharpshooter," Tanner corrected.
Buck's mustache twitched under a sarcastic grimace. Vin caught and held his gaze. "Never shot a picket."
The words sank in like the driving rain into the ground, and Wilmington's sarcasm turned to sad understanding and approval. He nodded at Vin, slapping the tracker's arm as Tanner returned to his harmonica.
"What's so funny?" Buck demanded of the grinning Chris.
"17th Mississippi," Chris repeated. "Those were Barkdale's boys."
"Damn," Buck muttered, shaking his head as he checked Ezra's pulse again. Satisfied with what he found, Wilmington looked at Chris. "Glad he missed."
"December's a bad time for swimmin' in the Rappahannock," Chris agreed.
"I don't believe it," Nathan said, betrayal and denial competing for space in his expression. "You can't be one of them, Vin - you're not like that." Nathan waved a hand in Ezra's direction to illustrate his point.
Tanner stopped blowing into his harmonica to look at Nathan. "Think so?"
"If you was, you'da never saved my black neck from that lynch mob. You ain't a man who could live off the backs of others."
"Spent the last few years livin' off other people's backs - dead and alive."
"Ain't the same thing, and you know it! You ain't like that - you ain't..." Jackson struggled to find the right word, his hand stabbing in Ezra's direction. "You ain't... you ain't -"
"The Massa?" Josiah's rumbling voice easily carried over the lashing rain.
Nathan's face twisted in anger. "Yes!" he hissed.
"You sure about that?" Vin asked.
"'Long as you're sure," Tanner grinned, raising his harmonica to his lips. Even J.D., as bewildered as he was by the conversation around him, understood the slap Vin delivered to Nathan as the mouth organ quietly hummed out "Dixie Land".
"Glad you never got me in your sights," Chris said.
Vin stopped playing for a moment. "Me too, Cowboy." When the music resumed, it was the usual improvised composition.
"Funny thing about masters and slaves," Josiah mused aloud. "Seems to me they're usually born into their places without any choice as to who shall be which."
"A man born in chains can choose to be free," Nathan said with fierce and justifiable pride.
"Even if he was raised to be a slave - even if it was all he ever knew?"
"I did, didn't I?"
"You certainly did, brother," Josiah acknowledged with a smile. "I wonder - could a man born to be a master also choose to be free of slavery? Even if he was born and raised to it, knowing nothing else?"
"It ain't the same thing!"
"So Paul will always be Saul?"
"Ezra's no saint."
"No - he's a man born of woman, like me - like you."
Nathan opened his mouth to reply, and found himself shutting it slowly.
'Look at what you've done now,' Chris thought as he watched Buck reach out to check Ezra's pulse again. 'Not even awake and you've got Nathan and Josiah at each other's throats.' Then again, Chris realized with some shock, if the gambler were awake, he'd never have let things get this far. No, he'd have conned them into playing cards, swapping stories, into having a good time and some good laughs.
Buck frowned, looking past Chris to the subdued Jackson. "Somethin's up, Nathan."
Vin stopped playing as Chris leaned backward and Nathan leaned forward, pressing his fingers into Ezra's neck.
"Pulse is stronger," the healer grunted, slipping his hand underneath the blankets to feel the Southerner's chest. "So's his breathin'.... Get some coffee ready."
Chris made more room for Nathan as he bent over Standish, lightly slapping the smaller man's face. "C'mon, Ezra, wake up, now."
"Wake up, Ezra," Buck repeated, shaking the shoulder closest to him.
Ezra's eyelids trembled, his blankets rising and falling with sudden, sharp quickness.
"C'mon, Pard," Vin encouraged, patting Ezra's leg.
Standish's eyelids twitched, flickering open once, then twice - then they snapped open, staring at the face of the concerned healer looming over him.
"No!" Blankets flew as Ezra's arm came up to shield his face as he pressed back into the saddles, feet trying to find purchase to push himself away from Jackson. Startled, Nathan lost his balance, grabbing Chris's arm to steady himself.
"Leave him alone!" Standish gasped, hate and fear plain on his face. He tried to push Nathan's arm off Chris's shoulder, the feeble attempt failing pathetically. "Go 'way... I'll take care of him..."
"You're the one that's hurt," Nathan told him, unable to keep the exasperation out of his voice.
Fear won out over hate. "I'm fine... just fine..."
"No, you ain't," Jackson told him, trying to pull the blankets back over the Southerner.
Fear flared into anger. "I said, I'm fine..."
'Where,' Nathan wondered rhetorically, 'have I heard that before?' Damn Josiah - damn Ezra - damn the blasted snake! He was no longer certain what fueled the gambler's stubborn prejudices, and that uncertainty threatened to rock his whole world.
"Standish," Larabee barked. "At ease. He's on our side."
Ezra blinked, looking from Nathan to Chris and back again. Gradually, he relaxed, his eyes screwing up as he sagged back against the saddles.
"Where does it hurt?" Jackson asked. Standish said nothing, lips pressing together in a white line.
"Answer him," Chris ordered, relentless.
"...Everywhere..." Ezra moaned, turning away from Chris toward Buck, his head rocking up off the saddles.
"I gotcha," Buck soothed, getting an arm behind the smaller man and helping him sit up.
"...Lord..." Ezra slurred. "...my blood's on fire..."
J.D. handed the sloshing coffee cup to Vin, who passed it on to Buck.
"This'll help," Wilmington promised.
Ezra made a noise of distaste, turning his head into Buck's chest to avoid the cup.
"...Not hungry..." Standish muttered against his shirt.
"It's coffee," Buck sighed, his heart breaking.
"...Real coffee...?" Ezra asked after a moment.
"Real coffee," Vin promised. "No chicory - just coffee."
Ezra turned back toward the cup, the smell of it making him forget his pain momentarily. He swallowed a couple of times, the longing plain on his face, but when Buck brought the cup forward, he held it off with a palsied hand.
"...The men first, Sergeant..." Ezra ordered.
Chris hung his head, his worst fears about Ezra confirmed.
"Already taken care of - sir," Buck answered, as Nathan moved the Southerner's hand away from the cup so Buck could put it to his lips. The look of bliss that crossed Ezra's face at his first sip was so different from his usual reaction to Vin's coffee that it made Wilmington want to cry.
They got two cups down him before he slipped away from them again, murmuring something about boots.
Buck let out a long, heavy sigh. "Y'shoulda stayed in Louisiana, Ezra."
Nathan settled back between Chris and J.D., oddly cheered by their warmth and easy proximity. "Gonna be a long night," he predicted with a sigh.
After a moment, Vin began to play his harmonica again. It was oddly comforting, muting the noise of the storm. J.D. caught himself yawning, and shook his head to wake himself up.
"Go to sleep, J.D.," Buck instructed gently. 'You're probably the only one of us who can.'
J.D jerked awake with the growl of approaching thunder fading from his ears. Another storm was blowing in, he realized.
"You okay, kid?" Buck asked with gruff concern.
Sitting up straighter and pulling his blanket tighter around him, Dunne glanced quickly around. He and Buck were the only ones with their eyes open, and J.D. was still young and innocent enough to believe the others were actually asleep. Consequently, he gave his best friend an honest answer.
"I've never even heard of Fredericksburg, Buck."
Buck smiled grimly. "Ain't surprised. It wasn't very big in Boston." At J.D.'s confusion, Wilmington sighed. "We lost, J.D." The big man's gaze shifted to Ezra's wan face. "They beat the tar out of us," he admitted.
J.D. gathered his courage. "What happened?"
Under the cover of his hat, Chris winced. He could hear Vin's voice saying, "Ask a stupid question..."
'Get an answer you don't want to hear,' the gunslinger finished silently.
Buck rubbed his cold hands together, knowing there were five sets of ears waiting to hear what he had to say. Six, if he was lucky.
"We got there in November of '62," Wilmington said, his eyes focusing on some distant point far beyond the tent wall. "We mighta had a chance if we'd moved then, but ol' General Burnside was a cautious fella... so we sat on the wrong side of the Rappahannock River and waited for pontoon bridges to arrive, while Johnny Reb dug in on the heights behind the town."
Catching movement in the corner of his eye made Buck look down again at Ezra. A manicured, dirt-streaked hand was spider-walking itself out from under the Southerner's blankets. Buck reached out to push it back under cover and found his hand clutched in a frail, spasmodic grip.
Wilmington returned the embrace, pressing the trembling hand until the fingers of both men turned white. The hell of endlessly charging up Marye's Heights into the mouth of Confederate artillery still haunted Buck's dreams, especially on nights like this. For the first time, he wondered what kind of hell it had been for the men behind the cannons. He didn't like the question at all - and he liked it even less when he looked at Ezra Standish and found his answer.
Clearing his throat, Buck forced a reassuring smile for J.D.'s benefit.
"Took us 'til December 11th to get started with them bridges. Them Reb ba-uh, boys - could see like cats in the dark.... Barkdale's Mississippi Brigade was dug in across from us, and they were firin' before we got close enough to the water to get our feet wet."
J.D. swallowed and looked at the slumped Vin. The tracker's hands sat in his lap, cradling his harmonica.
"We tried to blow the hell out of 'em with our artillery, but they kept shootin' us down, one at a time. Finally, we sent a couple a' infantry regiments across the river to flush the snipers out, give our engineers a chance to get the bridge finished."
"Is that where you and Chris were?"
"No.... We went across when the - uh, when the Confederates pushed our boys back to the river. Damn near broke us there and then." Buck's gaze strayed to Vin. "Mighta been better if they had." He found himself crushing Ezra's hand in his, understanding why Nathan thought of Standish and Tanner as two different kinds of people. Vin was the kind of man who did his duty, followed his orders - Ezra was the kind of man who issued them. But then again, that was the difference between he and Chris.
"They suckered us, Kid. Lee pulled us along through that city, made us think they were retreatin'."
'How could we have believed anything else?' Chris wanted to demand of Buck. The Mississippi men had fought to the death for every inch of ground they'd given up. He remembered that night too well. Their orders had said that if a Rebel had a gun in his hand, kill him... and they had.
"Fightin' lasted all night, into the day..." Buck continued, his memory rolling image after image of the men he'd killed, the friends he'd watch die, and the price he and the other Federal troops had made Fredericksburg pay for the blood they'd shed. "We tore that town apart.... Man does some things he ain't very proud of after a night like that."
"So - you won, right? I mean, you took the town...?"
"They gave us the town.... And then waited for us to try and take 'em. We obliged on the mornin' of December 13th, advancin' against their line south of town. Swear to God their field artillery was pickin' whose head to shoot off, they were that damn good."
Ezra's breath caught in a whimper of pain, and Buck eased his grip on the Southerner's hand.
"You think Ezra was - one of them?"
Buck laughed. "I'd bet real money on it, kid. He's got the balls for it, that's fer sure."
Vin remembered complimenting Ezra on his accuracy with a cannon as they rode out of the Seminole village together. His hands twitched around the harmonica they held as he remembered Ezra's reply: "Dreadful... I was tryin' to hit Anderson."
'Bullshit,' Vin thought, as he'd thought at the time. If Ezra'd been aiming for Anderson, the cannonball would have continued on its course after it had killed him, cutting through the seven men who had come to stop the demented colonel. No, Ezra had aimed for the flagpole - and he'd blown the Stars and Bars of the Confederate battle flag straight to hell.
"It's all right, Buck - you don't have to tell me any more," J.D. offered.
"We fought all day, into the night.... In the streets, in houses.... There were bodies stacked to the eaves in some of 'em. We were using dead men for shelter by the time night fell..." Anguish twisted Buck's face. "Burnside just kept throwin' us at that damn hill, brigade after brigade. The artillery would shatter our columns, we'd reform, and the infantry would blow us to pieces. Those cannons were firin' sheet lightnin'.... It was pure murder, J.D."
J.D. shivered, and it took Nathan back to the wounded soldiers freezing to death on the field of Fredericksburg and his frantic search to find them while they were still alive. Darkness had allowed the stretcher-bearers from both sides to come for their fallen, mingling with the looters from both sides as they waded through the piled bodies. He remembered the Federal corporal he'd found, who'd kept alive using the fading warmth of a Rebel corpse. He remembered the sound of the pistol being cocked in his face by a blood-spattered boy in a gray jacket as he'd shifted the corpse from the corporal. And, God help him, he remembered the Confederate officer who'd saved his life that night by ordering the Rebel private to put his gun away. He couldn't remember the officer's face, couldn't remember anything but the anger that burned in him when that weary, southern gentleman's voice had said, "Get on about your duties, boy."
The Rebel officer hadn't been Ezra, though - he knew that, damn it!
'But it could have been,' his heart whispered over his mind's denial.
Ezra twisted toward Buck. "...Boots..." he muttered, "...get their..." His voice faded and he fell still again.
J.D. held his breath as Buck checked the Southerner's pulse. "I think it's stronger..." Wilmington said, as the others 'came awake' around them.
"More coffee?" Buck asked as Nathan stretched as well as he could in the narrow tent. Jackson nodded, and they went into what was now a well-practiced drill.
"Why's he want his boots?" J.D. asked, puzzled.
Chris refused to meet Wilmington's gaze. Buck had started this and, by God, he could finish it.
"Not his boots - just 'boots'. Those - the - oh, hell..."
"A lot of us didn't have boots, J.D." Vin explained softly. "Or jackets, or blankets.... The dead didn't need theirs anymore."
J.D.'s mouth dropped open as he stared at Vin, seeing him methodically stripping a frozen corpse. Behind Tanner, he could see Ezra, hear Standish ordering, "Get their boots."
It took J.D. a moment to close his mouth, but when he did, he managed to nod his acceptance of what Vin had told him.
'Thanks, kid,' Tanner told Dunne silently, raising his harmonica to drown out Ezra's "not hungry" as Buck and Chris forced the cold coffee down his throat.
J.D. hid his face in his hat. "Ezra's not gonna like it," he said, fingering the fabric of the neatly folded trousers lying in his lap.
"Trust me, if we didn't do this, we'd like it even less," Nathan assured him, wondering when his squeamish colleagues would leave off their examination of the shadows the lantern was throwing on the ceiling of the tent. "His body's wakin' up, and you know what your body does when it wakes up after drinkin' a pot of coffee."
"Nathan!" Dunne protested, squirming uncomfortably. The sound of the rain splashing was painfully loud to the young man.
Jackson laughed. "Go back to sleep, J.D."
Vin's breath caught in his throat, effectively silencing his soft music. For what must have been the twelfth time since he'd had to leave the tent to sit outside in the steady rain, he stuck his head and its dripping hat through the opening between the canvas and the horse blankets.
"He's alive," Josiah assured him, his eyes closed as he fought for internal serenity.
Vin nodded his thanks, spraying water on J.D. as he returned to his soggy, solitary vigil. A few hours before dawn, Ezra had groaned, rolled on to his side facing Chris and pulled his legs up to his chest. Nathan had poked his knees, and Standish had rewarded him with a jerky kick. Evidently that was good - Ezra's body was becoming aware of itself again. Unfortunately, what it was aware of first was that it was in pain. And Ezra's body, without Ezra's mind to restrain it, had no compunction about letting the world know it.
The groan had been the first of many, one following after the other, a whimpering, repetitive keening. Just when Vin knew he'd have to leave the tent or kill Ezra, the Southerner had fallen silent, scaring the hell out of everyone. No one had said anything for the twenty minutes it had taken for Ezra's body to remember it was in pain and start moaning again. Just when they'd all been ready to bolt, the groaning would stop, and they'd all panic, and sit and wait, and wait, and then collapse in relief when he'd start yowling again.
Vin had stuck it out in the tent for an hour past sunrise, and then he'd had to get outside, away from the sight and sound of Ezra. He hadn't been able to go far, he'd discovered, hunkering down miserably in the mud outside the tent, playing his harmonica to put as much of a barricade between that sound and his ears as possible.
Ten minutes of silence passed and a soft yelp issued from the tent, sliding into an agonized monotone and Vin hurriedly returned to his playing. A moment later, he heard the saddle blankets at the other end of the tent slap against themselves wetly.
Looking up, the tracker wasn't surprised to see Chris standing next to him, a wild, pinched sort of look on his tired face. The gunslinger dropped to his haunches next to Vin, the wet tails of his black duster draping themselves over his boots, the hem of the poncho he wore over it layering into the mud. Vin smiled at him around the harmonica, and Chris returned it. A black-gloved hand disappeared under the coat and poncho. When it reappeared, it held a silver flask.
Vin's smile turned into a grin and he put the harmonica away in his pocket.
"I know it's not his fault," J.D. said from where he sat on the wet ground next to Buck. "I know he's in pain and can't control what he's doin'..."
Dunne had been the last to leave the tent, but when the rain had stopped, the temptation to get away from the unrelenting sound of Ezra's suffering had proven too much for his better intentions.
"...but Jesus, I wish he'd shut up," Chris finished for him, conceding what whiskey was left in Ezra's flask to J.D.'s shot nerves.
The groans from the tent stopped as if on cue. Once again, they were all on their feet, heading toward the tent to make sure the gambler was still breathing. Before they could reach it, they found out he was.
"Where the hell are mah clothes?!"
"NNNNNNNNHHHHHHH!!!!" Chaucer scolded with delight from his tie-down.
J.D. was the only one who made it to the tent. Everyone else stopped in their tracks, incapacitated by howls of relieved laughter.
"Hi, Ezra!" the kid's overjoyed voice caroled from the tent. "How y'feelin'?"
Chris could just imagine the look that was scorching J.D. as Ezra asked, "What happened? Where are we - and why am I wearin'..." the gambler's hoarse voice trailed off, unable to put his degradation into words.
"You got bit by a snake," they heard J.D. say, helpfully.
There was a long moment of silence during which they could all see Ezra struggling through the burden of his vocabulary to find a suitable response to the kid. Finally, through clenched teeth, Standish growled, "Ah know."
Chris staggered against Buck, and they leaned in to one another, holding each other up. It was the whiskey, Chris told himself, and the lack of sleep.... Yeah, that had to be what'd gotten into them.
"What kind of snake was it?" J.D. wanted to know.
They all held their breaths, waiting for what would come next.
"A diminutive specimen, possessed of prodigious dentition," Ezra answered, after a pregnant pause.
Chris looked at Buck, mouthing "Huh?" just as J.D. said it. Wilmington lost the fight to stay upright, sinking down to his knees.
"Kid, you're killin' me," Buck gasped.
"An itty-bitty one - with great big teeth," Ezra translated with asperity.
"Oh... I thought it mighta been a rattler."
Ezra decided for his sanity's sake that it was time to change the subject. "Where are mah boots?"
Suddenly, the overheard conversation wasn't funny anymore and five men avoided looking at each other.
"They're over there, by your - oh..." they heard J.D. say.
"Mah coat!" Ezra wailed.
The laughter outside the tent returned as chuckles.
"We, uh, had to cut it off you..." J.D. explained.
"You couldn't open the seams?" Ezra sounded like a man about to break down and weep.
"Oh..." J.D. said again. "Hey, that's a good idea, Ezra! I'll remember that the next time."
"Next - ?" Ezra sputtered. "Good Lord!"
Chris grabbed at a stitch developing in his side. "I'm gonna get those horses, get 'em back to town, and get a wagon," he decided, lurching determinedly toward the tether line.
"Watch your back, Cowboy," Vin advised as Larabee went past him.
Chris inclined his head to indicate he'd heard, even though the tracker was pretty sure he hadn't listened. A grinning Buck caught Vin's gaze and, together, they turned to observe their friend's progress as he walked without thought or concern into the narrow gap between his horse and Chaucer. Turning his back on the bay, he began to get his horse ready for its saddle.
Vin shook his head as Chaucer stretched out his neck and helped himself to a piece of Larabee's flat ass.
"God damned horse!" Chris bellowed, his fist whistling through empty air as he spun. Chaucer flipped his upper lip at him, hobbying his head, and Chris knew without a doubt he had just been conned, but good.
Inside the tent, J.D. put a hand on Ezra's chest to make him lay back down. "They're fine," the young man assured the worried gambler. "Which reminds me..."
Moving awkwardly, the kid searched through his pockets until he found the one that held Ezra's money. "Here."
Standish took it with shaky hands that were still sure enough to peel off a twenty-dollar bill and hold it out for Dunne to take.
"Ezra..." J.D. sighed, his disappointment dulling the sparkle in his eyes. The gambler's blood-shot gaze locked with his, and even though Ezra's expression was unfathomable, the young man was aware that the Southerner was remembering the last words he'd heard before he'd passed out. Finally, Ezra replaced the twenty in the roll and offered his hand instead.
"Thirsty?" J.D. asked, his smile lighting up the dim interior as he shook the gambler's hand. "Hungry?"
Ezra's eyes closed wearily. "Neither... but I would appreciate it if you would hand me my saddlebags and bring me some water to brush my teeth. My mouth tastes like I have been swimmin' in kerosene."
"That's 'cause we made you drink Vin's coffee."
Ezra blinked, taking his time to digest this particular bon mot.
"Wasn't the snake bite sufficient?" he asked plaintively.
The makeshift tent flaps flew open, an irate Chris Larabee stooping into the tent.
"J.D., go with Buck and get those horses back to town, let the undertaker know he's got some clients out here."
The young man nodded, putting Ezra's saddlebags and his canteen down next to the gambler. The look on Larabee's face made J.D. decide to ask Buck what had happened to make Chris so furious.
"A difference of opinion with Chaucer?" Ezra guessed, wicked humor lighting his eyes.
"God damn that horse -!"
"I told you profanity upsets him," Standish smirked.
Chris ground his teeth together. "We almost had to shoot him, Ezra."
That got the gambler's attention, his suddenly bland expression taking on an air of subtle menace. "I wouldn't advise it, Mister Larabee."
"It damn near came down to him or you - he wouldn't let us near you after you passed out."
Ezra's gaze dropped, hiding what his eyes might reveal from Chris.
"Why didn't you say somethin' when I asked you if you'd been hurt?"
"You asked me if I'd been shot," Ezra pointed out with his own cold little smile. "I hadn't been."
"I ain't in the mood to play games. Shot, hurt - makes no difference. You tell me, damn it!"
"Or you'll shoot me yourself?" the gambler asked, his gold-capped canine glinting in the dimness.
Chris shook his head, disgusted. "You ever cut a man a break?"
"You made it quite clear you weren't interested in listening to what I was tryin' to tell you," Ezra countered, an edge in his voice the gunslinger wasn't used to having cut into his hide.
"Next time it's important, make me listen," Chris growled.
Ezra's smile was genuine. "That could be more hazardous to my health than the original injury."
Larabee stared him down until Ezra's smile faded into uncertain wariness. When he was sure he had the gambler's attention, Chris said, "Don't bet on it."
Standish frowned, and the gunslinger left him to his troubled thoughts, leaving the tent with as much dignity as his smarting backside allowed him.
Chris pressed his thumb and forefinger against his burning eyes. It was past midnight, well past time for him to get some sleep, but something was keeping him in the saloon besides his latest 'one for the road'.
They'd been home for a few hours now, long enough for hot baths and hot meals all around. Ezra was still hurting, but the swelling on his arm was going down, the dead skin around the bite starting to peel. The gambler had point-blank refused to be taken to the clinic, preferring his own bed to anything Nathan had to offer. Since Ezra had managed his usual trick of showing up cleaned, shaved, and shined without ever going near the bathhouse or the barber and had made a respectable effort at polishing off his dinner, Nathan had agreed to let him take care of himself.
So, if Nathan was happy, why was he sitting alone in an empty saloon, worrying?
Sighing, Chris downed what bourbon was left in his shot glass and stood. Instead of walking out the door, he climbed the stairs, heading up to the second story and Ezra's room.
"Mornin', Cowboy," Vin greeted him quietly. The tracker sat with his back to the wall next to Ezra's door, brushing the edge of his harmonica across his lips. On the other side of the door, his back against the wall opposite Tanner, Buck nodded his greeting. J.D. sat cross-legged on the floor beside him, fast asleep, his head leaning heavily against Wilmington's leg.
Chris frowned, his eyes narrowing at the tension stretched between his two friends. Neither Vin nor Buck would meet his gaze, deliberately avoiding seeing his unspoken question.
Ezra's shout made them all jump, J.D. coming awake with a startled snort. He blinked up at Buck, who reached down a hand to tousle the kid's hair reassuringly.
"Fire! Damn you -" The frantic orders cut off with a gasp and the squeak of bedsprings as Ezra sat up.
"God damn it!" Chris heard Ezra swear, trying to use the words to choke off a sob. "God damn 'em all!"
'Damn you,' Chris silently told the man behind the closed door. He told himself he had better things to do with his time than stand here and listen to Ezra cry, but his feet didn't seem to agree with him. They left him where they'd brought him, and they kept him there all night, through more curses and more crying, and they didn't move him from where he was until the sun was rising and Ezra's fist punched itself through the thin wall of his bedroom.
Then his feet ran like hell away, right along with Buck's, Vin's, and J.D.'s.
"Now there's a sight you don't often see this time a'mornin'," Buck drawled as Ezra walked into the restaurant as the sun peeped over the horizon.
"I blame it entirely on Mister Tanner," the gambler yawned, tossing his hat onto the corner of his chair's back. "My sleep was drowned in the Stygian swamp he calls coffee."
"That's gratitude for ya," Buck grinned, shoving his third gravy-covered biscuit into his mouth.
"Gratitude?" Ezra repeated, his eyebrows climbing in indignation as he began to fill his plate from the platters of food set out for the peacekeepers' breakfast. "You destroy my best coat, drink my whiskey, upset my horse -" Ezra glared balefully across the restaurant table at Chris, who sat half-on, half-off his chair, "- and you expect gratitude?"
"We coulda left ya out there with the snakes," Buck reminded him.
"It might have been preferable to bein' subjected to the ordeal of Mister Tanner's coffee. I am certain that noxious brew did more damage to my nervous system than an entire nest of vipers."
Vin beamed at the compliment, washing down a bite of steak with a swig of the maligned beverage. Ezra gave the tracker a pained look as he cut his meat and tore his bread. Putting down his knife, he pushed his food around his plate with his fork.
'Eat it!' Chris snapped mentally at the younger man, remembering how many other meals they'd shared where Ezra had re-arranged his plate without taking a bite, before shoving the uneaten food in the direction of one of their three resident bottomless pits.
Funny that he'd never noticed before what a nervous eater the gambler was. Nervous starver, he corrected himself. When life was good, he'd seen Ezra pack it away with as much gusto and capacity as Buck. Well, Vin, anyway.
"I wonder what's got the kid's attention," Buck grunted as Josiah and Nathan came to join them at the table. J.D. stood behind them, so intent on the book he was reading he didn't look up when Josiah turned to ask him if he was coming in or not.
"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "Mr. Dunne's preoccupation with that tome might lead one to suspect it was somethin' French."
Josiah laughed as he settled in between Tanner and Larabee, the only other man at the table to understand the gambler's joke.
"If it is," Chris said, "I get it next."
Ezra gave him a look of wide-eyed innocence. "Mister Larabee, I am shocked."
"What'cha readin', kid?" Buck demanded as J.D. joined them, the book nowhere to be seen.
Dunne sidled in between Chris and Ezra, across from where Nathan was pulling up a chair between Buck and Vin.
"Readin'?" Dunne repeated, clearly looking for a way out of the interrogation.
"Yeah, y'know - that book you had your eyeballs plastered against a minute ago."
"Oh, well - you know, it's just a... dime novel.... Gunslingers, Indians, girls tied to rail-road tracks."
"Is that how they do it these days?" Josiah smiled.
"Sounds dangerous to me," Vin said.
"Hey!" J.D. yelped, snatching for the book Ezra had ferreted out of its hiding place.
"Trust me, young man, an obviously homemade, plain brown paper wrapper on a book is a beacon to the curious and morally uptight," Standish instructed, flipping open the book to read its title page. "Let us see what is so engrossin'..."
"Ezra!" J.D. pleaded, blushing a desperate red. Ezra's eyes narrowed as his jovial 'friendly game of chance' mask snapped itself onto his face.
"My, my," he chided. "You certainly should not be readin' this - I shudder to think of the ideas it might put in to your impressionable mind."
"Give it back!" J.D. demanded, and wonder of wonders, Ezra did. Dunne's relief was short-lived, as Buck's long arm snaked out and snatched it out of the kid's grasp.
"This ain't no dime novel," Buck told him, ruthlessly stripping the carefully made dust jacket off the large, heavy volume. "'Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee'..." Wilmington read aloud.
Ezra produced his best amused smile. "I had no idea you were interested in American melodrama, Mister Dunne."
"Just tryin' to catch up on some history I missed, that's all."
"Where'd you get this?" Buck demanded, hard pressed to keep his temper in check.
"I borrowed it from Mrs. Travis - along with a couple of books about President Lincoln, and somethin' she said I should read called the Federalist Papers."
Vin caught J.D.'s flustered gaze, giving him a supportive wink. The kid straightened up in his chair and took the book back from Wilmington.
"You got a problem with me readin' 'em?"
Buck sighed. "No, kid, I ain't got a problem with it."
Ezra laughed, and Chris watched him realize what he was doing to his food.
"You got a problem with it, Ezra?" J.D. demanded.
"Not a one," Ezra assured him, forking a piece of steak into his mouth. He chewed twice, swallowing hard to get the morsel down his throat. "Just remember that while it is true history is written by the winners, the passage of time tends to crown the losers with the false glory of sentimentality."
"You fight in the war, Ezra?" Vin asked.
"You wound me, Mr. Tanner," the gambler sighed. "A sensible man paid some other fool to be cannon fodder." Ezra shoved half a biscuit in his mouth, stealing Vin's coffee to wash it down his throat.
The muffled sound of wagon wheels and men on horses passing by on the street, laughing as they spotted the saloon, brought a smile to the gambler's face.
"Excuse me, gentlemen. My muse calls." Wiping the corner of his mouth with his napkin, Ezra rose to leave - but not before he had shoved his plate of food in Buck's direction and his plate of cinnamon toast toward J.D.
"I'm not hungry," J.D. snapped, regretting the words as soon as they were out of his mouth.
"I am," Vin said, pulling the sweet bread toward him.
"Let us know what's goin' on, Ezra," Chris commanded as Standish reached the door. The Southerner tipped his hat in acknowledgement of the order before stepping outside.
'There," Chris finally admitted to himself, 'goes a man working awfully hard at being a bastard.'
The rattle and bang of the door closing hung on the air for a long time, until Josiah spoke.
"I spent the years of the war with a band of renegade Cherokee," he said conversationally, his head cocked to one side as he contemplated the swag on the window's curtain. "The band was originally from the Smoky Mountains and we'd joined with the Seminole in the swamps of Georgia and Florida after the Army ran us out of our home. If we saw a blue coat - or a gray jacket - we shot to kill."
The six men sat silent for a moment or two, evaluating what Sanchez had just told them - and why. Then Chris reached across the table, grabbed Ezra's plate, and sat it in front of the preacher. Vin started in on the buttered toast and J.D. opened his book to where he'd left off.
"Waiter," Buck called out. "Whiskey - and six glasses." He thought about it for a moment, and added, "Better make it a couple a'bottles."
"And put it on Ezra's tab," Chris ordered.
Author's Note: About this snake bite thing.... I admit to sort of squinting a little at the actual facts of what snake venom does to a body, in that I'm not sure it would produce a wandering mind. It does, however, suppress and shut down the system: Lungs, blood, kidneys, heart - they can all go to hell in a hand-basket in the worst-case scenarios. Giving alcohol to someone a venomous snake has bitten is a BAD idea, and apparently usually quite fatal. Strong coffee or tea is recommended, however.
For the sake of Art (ahem!) let us just pretend that the little baby rattler that met its premature demise under the boot-heel of our Mr. Standish was something of a mutant to account for the wonky facts of his trip down memory lane. (Because, if the truth were strictly known, had this really happened, I'd've probably killed the little fella.)
About Fredericksburg.... The facts are as accurate as I could make them, but the opinions given as to why what happened during the battle happened are just that - the opinions of these particular characters, and might not agree with the opinions of historians or even contemporary generals about the why's and wherefore's of the battle.
Oh -- Laissez les bon temps roulez. It's one of the great Cajun battle-cries and it means, "Let the good times roll!" J
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